Let people be smart


By Lauren Liao

At Wolff Olins, we often refer to ourselves as storytellers, and creators of experiences. Many times we feel the need to explain everything, show everything, create everything. The idea of brand as a dialogue with audiences is nothing new, but what happens if we elevate that and starting thinking about brands as a collaboration between them and their audience?

Last night a group of us went to see a preview of the Broadway show, “This is our Youth” starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson. What impressed me most was how much they did with relatively little. There were three actors, one set.  The set was a studio apartment. The actors often spoke on the phone, and the audience was left to hear one-sided dialogue with other characters that were never present. The actors would enter and exit out a single door to go to destinations unseen. The dialogue gave you just enough information to know who they were talking to and where they were going, and they left the rest for you to imagine. Imagine that?

It reminded me of an interview I heard on NPR with the writers of the hit show Breaking Bad. They mentioned a quote from Billy Wilder that they would often talk about in the writer’s room, which is “give the audience two and two, let them make four, and they’ll love you forever…” They went on to say, “The storytelling is really a collaboration between all of us on the side of making the show and what’s going on in the audience’s head. And so, sometimes, we like to keep things a little ambiguous and let people be smart.” What a beautiful thought. Let people be smart.

What could we leave out and let people fill in with their imagination? In our relationships with clients and, in turn, their relationships with their audiences, how might we let people be smart? 

Lauren Liao is a Strategist at Wolff Olins New York.


Saving the planet?There’s not an app for that.


The act of streaming video for one hour uses more electricity than two new refrigerators. 

By Dan Gavshon-Brady

We’re all eco warriors now

For ecologically-minded smartphone users, there are around 300 green mobile apps listed on the US Environmental Protection Agency website (and doubtless many more elsewhere). If you want to recycle locally or create a sustainable diet plan, you can. If you want to reduce your use of electronics, air conditioning or heating remotely, Nest and other nudges are there for you too. If you want to take control, practice what you preach, and do good things for your environment and the world, it’s never been easier. But there are flaws to this premise.

The cloud is not a cloud

As Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller elegantly point out, increases in green app usage inevitably increase electricity usage. And given our enormous and ever-increasing addiction to our devices, network usage and data storage are rising accordingly. Thus we enter a Catch-22 where trying to do something good, like reducing personal energy consumption, is not only carbon-negative but also perpetuates the larger problem of fossil fuel usage.

This is a common paradox, representative of the intricacies and interdependencies of the world we operate in. There are structural and systemic phenomena everywhere which tie us in knots and compromise well-meaning behaviour.

Solo or social

Making apps is not going to fix the environmental challenges facing the world any better than cutting down on how much meat we eat or making sure we recycle every week. For real change to occur, it needs to happen from top to bottom, not just individually. This means there needs to be political, corporate and civic will for change to happen. We identify ourselves as consumers over citizens, giving rise to the idea that solving problems is an individual rather than communal responsibility. If we, as individuals and populations, act only like consumers, that’s how we’ll be treated (Russell Davies is excellent on this point here). It lets everyone off the hook, and nothing will change (Naomi Klein’s latest book, previewed here, will no doubt seek to address this).

At Wolff Olins, we talk about making positive impact, both commercially and socially. This is a well-communicated message throughout the company. And, wanting to walk the walk, there are lots of things we do here for positive social impact. That varies from drinking from glass bottles instead of plastic to using tablets rather than print-outs. It’s at the heart of our initiatives like the Honey Club, and our involvement with Skip Garden which benefits the local community. Hopefully, it exists in the work we do for clients too.

And yet, we are a global business operating out of four offices, which means a lot of people are in planes, leaving a considerable carbon footprint. So, despite having the best of intentions and often the best of actions, you could argue that we, too, are collectively challenged in our desire to have positive impact.

If the aim is for everyone to take personal responsibility for saving the world, then we’ll need to accept that we’re all compromised or go and live in the woods, off-grid. But the aim should be to change the system for the better, and that requires a shared desire and shared action from consumer, corporate, political and civic corners. How we compromise ourselves individually pales in comparison to what we could do together.

Dan Gavshon-Brady is a Strategist at Wolff Olins London.

A school for ambitious leaders


By Melissa Andrada and Robert Jones

Wolff Olins is a child of the 1960s. One of our first clients was The Beatles. Shaking things up, challenging the status quo, making a difference in the world has always been a part of our DNA.

This is in part why we started Kitchen. It’s a school for ambitious leaders who want to build businesses that change the world. It’s a school where people can learn about things not typically taught in business school – things like how to be original, how to workshop to solve problems, how to make a creative climate that inspires innovation.

In the spirit of cofounder Wally Olins who first democratised our thinking through his book The Corporate Personality in 1978, we wanted to share half a century’s worth of experience, thinking and tools. Through our consulting practice, we’ve been lucky to work with some of the most impactful and inspiring brands in the world, from the Olympics to Google, from Virgin to NYC. Now through learning, we want to equip ambitious leaders – from large companies to small businesses to startups – to build businesses that drive positive social and commercial impact.

Setting up a school within Wolff Olins was something the company had been kicking around for a few years. It largely came into being because of two people who shared a passion for learning.

Education is what gets me up in the morning. Ever since I was kid, I’ve always loved learning, and teaching is actually how I got into branding. I’ve spent the past few years teaching startups at places like General Assembly and CcHUB on how to use brand to make money and do good things.

And Robert was responsible for setting up the first masters in brand leadership at the University of East Anglia. He spends every Monday teaching his students on how to become better and more purpose-driven leaders in business. Elegantly bridging together theory and practice, Robert’s work in academia and business inform each other.

Our first education collaboration together was the Secret Power of Brands, a massive open online course (or what they call a MOOC) on Futurelearn that has reached tens of thousands learners around the world. Building on the success of our first MOOC, we decided to set up Kitchen in December of last year.

Robert and I thought about calling our school ‘Wolff Olins Academy’, but decided to name it after our actual kitchen in the London office. Monday through Friday, from 1-2pm, everyone in the company – from our CEO to our designers to our security guards — step away from our work to eat lunch in the kitchen. We’ve got an amazing chef, and every day is like Thanksgiving.

We want our teaching spirit to feel like a kitchen – to be behind the door, around the table, and about making things in a messy but good way. We want to share our expertise in a way that encourages people to be brave, experiment and learn from each other. Since our launch, we’ve taught 28 classes to thousands of learners around the world – from as far as Lagos, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

For Robert and me, this is just the beginning. There is still so much more learning that we have to do. Come join us.

Melissa Andrada (@themelissard) heads up Kitchen from Wolff Olins and is also a lead strategist in the London office. 

Robert Jones is head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia.


Food and fair exchange


By Stefan Emrich

At Wolff Olins we believe in Fair Exchange as a guiding principle for our work with brands.

Recently we gathered a great bunch of people from the world of food to discuss how they create fair exchanges to address the main challenges in production, distribution and consumption of food today. Be it through transparency (Oxfam), authenticity (Innocent), technology (agrantec), responsibility (Sainsbury’s), community (Sorted), or locality (Hubbub).

Throughout the discussions we identified 3 crucial threads that all participants consider critical to make food fairer:

 1. How might we distribute more knowledge?

Education is a key enabler for both sustainable food production and consumption. Giving farmers the knowledge about food economics is equally important as showing them the best way to grow their crop.

At the other end of the value chain, exciting consumers about food increases both the literal value and the perceived value of food. Be it through schools visiting a nearby farm or building an online community that celebrates the fun of cooking and food. 

2. How might we engage people more with food?

Bringing people closer to the food they consume in an easy way empowers people to make the right choices. Be it through storytelling on products, a clear labeling system or smart technology that directly links consumers to producers. 

3. How might we find a balance in scale for businesses and food systems?

In food it’s a constant challenge to bring the great small businesses to scale, e.g. through specialized delivery services for local, independent stores. At the same time the big supermarkets have to find ways to stay close to their producers instead of just driving prices and value down to an unsustainable level. By doing this they can have a deeper and more positive impact on food far beyond their business by setting new market standards. That’s one of the reasons why independent brand ratings can be a powerful tool to trigger change.

Brands are critical

Brands must play a crucial role in all these fields. Educating everyone, from farmers to consumers so we have healthy providers and savvy shoppers is in a brand’s best interest. Equally brands are in an ideal position to excite consumers by telling engaging stories and helping smaller businesses to create even more impact.

It was a brilliant and stimulating morning but obviously we didn’t solve all the problems or find all the answers. So if you’re interested in carrying on the debate and want to help make a fairer world of food, please contact us here.

Stefan Emrich is a Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins London.

The Future Now series

The Future Now is a new series of events exploring the future of tech and how businesses can adapt to the rapidly evolving needs of the consumer. We’ve developed this series in partnership with global executive search consultancy firm Russell Reynolds.

The first event was on the theme of Customer Centricity and included talks from Microsoft and Babylon, as well as startups Technology Will Save Us and Roli. Check out the short film above to see a bit of what went down canal-side last week. Our next edition will be November 4th on Digital Transformation – stay tuned for further details.

Drop and give me 100


By Ben Gibbs

Put your hand up if you love data. Keep your hand up if you love big data. Ok, keep your hand up if you think data is subjective? Humm. Only one.

More and more clients have realised the importance good data can have on their business. We all love data driven solutions to drive direction and delivery don’t we? The great thing about data is it can help steer us to a decision or an outcome,  but we should be careful that it doesn’t actually start steering us to the solution. Sometimes we just need to use gut, instinct and intuition to try things and to make mistakes. Scrawled on a wall by our studio’s resident retired stonemason was a quote by a clever chap (Albert Einstein) ”Logic will get you from A-B. Imagination will take you everywhere”.

After taking a client through some solid strategy we presented the logo to them… and they loved it — after the meeting we thought “job done”. The next day a little request came in “Can we see 100 variations — we just want to be sure that the one you showed us is right for us”. I didn’t quite understand – 100 variations of the same thing that you all loved? Why do you need this? Then the penny dropped and I realised this was them needing to see that data. The variations helped them confirm the one that we all liked at the beginning was the right one. Phew.

Data can be a safety net. Trusting someone’s whim isn’t so safe a net to rely on. This is where I find myself fighting with myself. With a history in information design and a recent history in creative branding the two worlds collide. I like having things backed up with reason, rational and logic but I’m learning that sometimes you just need to throw a creative grenade into the mix to offer up something unexpected otherwise you will end up at destination B.

I read an interesting paragraph on subjective and objective data (I have to admit I had to read it twice to understand) and found this to be useful: If I respond to the question “How easy is your computer to use on a scale of 1 to 10?”, my answer “seven” is quantitative, but it has resulted from my subjective opinion, so it is both quantitative and subjective. 

Like design it turns out can data be subjective. With quantitive data you can pick and choose what you want to see, you can phrase some words that change how a number is read. Qualitative data is primarily subjective and that is where I struggle – who do you listen to? Someone who has been doing this for 10 years or a reaction from 100 people on the street? Who’s data set is more valid? 

As a designer I am processing lots of ‘design data’ in every decision I make — the more we design and longer we design the bigger the data set becomes. Our qualitative data influences our designs, that’s how we get variety. But then qualitative data can be subjective. I found out my client doesn’t like yellow and I do. Can we use data to settle this debate? Probably; but who actually cares – I’ll just not use yellow.

Sometimes people need to see the data set to help validate a decision or reassure the work has been done. It is very easy to present the recommendation but how can we justify that recommendation with no visual back up? Some people trust you. Some people need to see all the workings that got you to where you are – even if that means visualising something that you know won’t work.

So are 100 logo variations design data? Probably.

Ben Gibbs is a Designer at Wolff Olins, London.

The state of the game: where do we go from here?

By James Titterton 

For an England fan the World Cup in Brazil has, of course, ended predictably (albeit it probably slightly earlier than most of us anticipated).

As our club sides return to pre-season training ready for another nine month slog through rain, shine and… more rain (my beloved Sheffield United included - I’m definitely a glutton for punishment), a brief pause in watching 22 people kick a bag of wind around has provided time for reflection on the state of the ‘beautiful game.’

Seeking solace in my other passion - music - I went to watch Arcade Fire at Hyde Park last night. Sat with a friend soaking up the sun (or getting burnt, as I realise today) a young family sat next to us. Five minutes later I was kicking a flyaway about with the dad and his two lads, one of whom was at an age where dribbling requires a bib, not a football. A world away from the sponsor-laden modern game played by multi-millionaires beamed to every corner of the earth to shirt-clad spectators. And the most football-related fun I’ve had all summer. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, it got me thinking.

A universal educational tool

A game with simple rules and endless solutions built around a universally accessible object, football is the perfect communication device. As with my Hyde Park experience, it transcends age, language and other barriers, whether real or ignorantly perceived. As a result, it can be leveraged to communicate other things. Think of a see-saw, with a football as the pivoting object. Using the laws of physics, if you apply enough force (in this instance money) in one direction, you can lift something else up (or, in this analogy, promote and communicate something else). It’s the perfect educational tool.

This power can be used in extremely positive ways. For example, in the late 1990s my uncle built a three-a-side football pitch out of reclaimed wood for a Sheffield-based charity called Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD). They have travelled Europe with it, hosting football tournaments in multi-cultural areas that were open to all, particularly local young people. Using football as a vehicle, FURD have spread their message of unity to thousands of young people across the globe, aiding the fight to kick racism out of football and society. 

Similarly, football (and the surrounding paraphernalia) has the power to help us understand more about ourselves, and the way we live. As a result of their interest in football, people have begun to understand more about their bodies, and the things they put in and try to get out of them. In my eyes the big breakthrough, in this respect, took place almost 20 years ago with the appointment of a single manager at one of the games most recognisable clubs. What I call ‘The Wenger Effect’ not only transformed the careers of players like Tony Adams; over time it has made society at large sit-up (and press-up, chin-up and pull-up) and take note.

The educational power of football can even be seen in some of the work of major brands. My cousins, age 13 and 16 respectively, know more about the way their feet work from the stuff they read about football boot technology of the likes of Adidas and Nike than the stuff they learn in their GCSE PE classes. Come to think of it, I’ve learned more about British history and society from football than I ever learned in A-Level history. (Admittedly I was down the pub for most of it…). 

Education through football: powerful stuff. Unfortunately, this power isn’t always used for the greater good and is ripe for the picking for people who want to use it for their own commercial gain. 

You only have to have given the gogglebox a cursory glance over the last few weeks to see some of the main culprits. Businesses the world over who show no other interest in football for the 1000-and-odd days between tournaments suddenly declare interest, with every billboard and ad-break littered with generic football-themed spots. And, call me naive, but how a game so universal and supposedly accessible for all requires an official beer, tyre, bank or burger I’ll never know. 

These lazy adverts and sponsorships (I’ve yet to see a good one this tournament) might seem innocent enough, but they’re the tip of an iceberg slowly damaging the game beyond repair, at all levels. 

The £300k-a-week contracts, multi-million-pound sponsorship deals and extortionate ticket prices are a result of clued up business people taking advantage of the power of football. Yes, some corporate sponsors do attempt to put back a bit of what they take away (such as McDonald’s with their KickStart initiative). But, for a game evidently played in some form or another for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and honed and codified by the working classes of the c18th Industrial Revolution in Britain to give themselves something active, social and cheap to do on a Saturday afternoon when the factories paused for their weekly breath, the sight of those for whom the very game was invented being priced out of access to a live match (or even deprived of decent, basic facilities to get changed in or play on on a wet Sunday morning in their local park) is a sorry sight indeed. 

That this is largely due to the activities of the ruling classes and their business interest, shows how the game is being taken over, piece by piece, by the very people it was invented to provide escape from. Powerful stuff, but for all the wrong reasons.

A universal challenge

The current tournament in Brazil, and all that accompanies it, has shown both sides of the beautiful game. But it also shows football, in my eyes, as being in a precarious position, where the thing we all hold so dear could easily be lost to us forever, swallowed up by greed and money. 

It’s down to all of us, especially those trying to use football to their own advantage, to make sure that, in future World Cups, we’re rejoicing in a game made accessible to, and owned by, all, as opposed to reminiscing of the days before football was lost to the prawn sandwich brigade.

As fans of any player, team or country, that’s surely got to be the biggest result of all time.

James Titterton is a Senior Designer at Wolff Olins London. 

I’m scared of tech (Back to the Future)




By Danielle Zezulinski 

I’ve come to the conclusion that I know nothing about technology, and it’s freaking me out.

I mean, I spend time on social media – too much on Facebook and occasional rants on Twitter about cars that nearly crash into my bike – use GPS apps to track my running and browse Wired every now and then. But I am otherwise utterly clueless about what’s next and frankly slightly averse to it. Will I pick up wearables? I’ve worn contacts for nearly 20 years, so I can’t imagine going back to glasses that make you look like a cyborg. Ditto to talking into my watch, Go-Go-Gadget style. The Internet of Things just makes me think it’s one more thing to worry about breaking. Is there a repairman you can call to fix The Thing if it goes down? And what about Big Data? How much do companies really know about me just by monitoring what I buy?

Tech confuses me because I don’t know what I am supposed to pay attention to and what’s a fad. If I adopt a new device now, will it still be The Device next year? Everything changes so quickly that I feel like I’ll never catch up – but I don’t want to be left behind.

So I sympathise with the cabbies who went on strike a few weeks ago in London. They were protesting TFL’s licensing of Uber as minicabs; Uber charges passengers a rate based on distance traveled, instead of a flat fee, and black cab drivers want Uber cabs to be licensed as they are and held to the same rates. They feel that Uber is beating them at their own game.

But really, the protest was against how something that was once a given (the black cab business model) is being disrupted by the world changing around it, and how cabbies aren’t in control of their own livelihoods. You don’t really need to do The Knowledge to drive a cab in London anymore, because there are satnavs. You don’t really need to own your own cab, because there are tons of companies to drive for. And the cabs themselves are changing too, in design, colour, emissions technology. It’s very possible that one day there won’t be London black cabs on the streets at all – in New York, taxis will shortly go from being yellow to green.

So I’ve been thinking about what I (and London’s cab drivers) can do to feel better about our quickly changing lives.

There are a few easy shifts we can make right now that will help us sleep better.

First, I think we should stop being afraid. So many amazing things have happened because of seemingly small technological advances, and there are so many more to come that shrinking in fear of tech will limit how far we can go as a society. The opposite of being afraid is being confident and brave, and I think we can all be brave and start to view the big expanse of ‘technology’ through the lens of what positive changes it can make. For instance, I am really inspired by how technology is making important things like education available to people who couldn’t afford them before. I am really excited about 3-D printing of organs for transplants. I am really energised by the promulgation of free speech through new channels. I am really optimistic about how some of the world’s biggest problems can be solved by innovations that couldn’t have been dreamed of just a short time ago.

And in a related point, I also think that we can take comfort in going slow. It may seem that things are changing so quickly that we as human beings can’t keep up, but relatively it’s all moving fairly glacially. We just have to look back at movies made 30 years ago, like Back to the Future, to see how our imagination runs much faster than actual technological advancement. Marty McFly went to 2015 and found hover boards, mobile trash cans, power shoelaces and holographic movie theatres all in wide use; it’s possible we will see these innovations emerge next year, but probably not to the extent that we saw on-screen. It’s even more reassuring if you look at films made in 1965, thinking about 2015 – we’re not wearing silver suits or populating the moon (yet). So whilst we can imagine a world that’s radically different due to technology, in reality we’re all, en masse, a lot slower on the uptake than we thought we would be. And that’s okay.

Finally, lets all just be curious. So many studies point to ongoing learning and playing as a way to keep the brain and body young, but also as a way to stay relevant. So just trying new things, investigating new developments, and dabbling in tech is a start. My guru in this is my 86 year old grandmother: she recently added me on LinkedIn. Until recently, I had no idea why; at her age, I thought, she has no reason to join LinkedIn. And then I realised, she’s just checking it out – and why not? She’s not limited by an invisible boundary that this network might not be for her, or not relevant to who she is. Lets not think about technology as something for someone else, or potentially not relevant to your world because of your age, gender, job, or some other invisible restriction. The beauty of technology is that’s democratic, open and available to all of us.

Of course there will be downsides, and real negatives that we will need to confront together as a society. Technology will change sectors, jobs, livelihoods, our homes, our health – everything. But ignoring it or resisting it won’t make it disappear. Instead, we need to challenge it – together. Let’s discuss why Facebook experimenting with our emotions doesn’t feel right. Let’s discuss how we feel threatened by multiple screens and devices in our daily lives. Let’s discuss why our kids spend more time online than off. And of course lets discuss what mobile technology means for the transportation industry as a whole, and cab drivers in particular. What we’ll ultimately find is that technology will bring us together, rather than rip us apart – we’ll find more ways to share, connect, learn and grow, online and off, through technology in the future.

Therefore, I’Ve decided to embrace technology holistically. I know I won’t ever understand coding and the nuances of 3D printing, nor will I follow the latest software update releases with the excitement of some of my peers, but I won’t ignore them either. I am trying to see how tech can positively influence growth, change, and the future for business and society. And I’m trying to empathise with those who haven’t made the leap I have – some won’t ever get here, and that’s okay. But at the end of the day, technology is part of who we are as humans. Like it or not, we’ll always keep innovating, making, thinking, creating, and expanding. Because if you can’t beat em, join em.

And besides – I’ll bet my lunch that London’s cabbies organised their strike over email and texts.

Danielle Zezulinski is Account Management Coach and Account Director at Wolff Olins London. 


Money talk


The role of money in our day-to-day lives has changed with far reaching impacts for both individuals and businesses.

A proliferation of new customer-centric services, business models and systems – enabled by new technologies – are changing the way we think about money and creating new forms of value.

How might these changes affect the role and character of brands in the financial sector and beyond?

We are conducting a series of global initiatives to understand what these changes mean. We’re inviting leaders from established financial institutions, disruptive start-ups, economists and other thought leaders  to build a shared picture of the Future of Money. 

Join us in San Francisco on 22 July, or in London on 18 September

If you can’t join us watch out for our report, which will share the findings from each region, creating a global picture of the shifts and opportunities that changes in money presents.